The island of Mauritius was uninhabited before its first recorded visit in the Middle Ages by Arab sailors who called it Dina Arobi. However, the island may have been visited by ancient seafarers long before. Wax tablets were found on the shores of Mauritius by the Dutch, but as the tablets were not preserved, it is impossible to say whether they were of Greek, Phoenician or Arab origin.
In 1507, Portuguese sailors arrived on the uninhabited island and established a visitor base. Diogo Fernandes Pereira, a Portuguese navigator, was the first known European to land on Mauritius. He named the island “Ilha do Cirne”. The Portuguese did not stay long, as they had no interest in these islands.
Dutch Mauritius (1638-1710)
A Dutch fleet led by Admiral Wybrand van Warwick arrived at Grand Port in 1598 and named this island “Mauritius” in honor of Prince Maurice van Nassau, who was the ruler of the Dutch Republic. The Dutch founded a small colony on the island in 1638, from which they mined ebony trees and imported sugar cane, domestic animals and deer. From here, the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman set out to discover the western part of Australia. The first Dutch settlement lasted twenty years. Several more attempts were made, but the settlements were unable to develop adequately, causing the Dutch to abandon Mauritius in 1710.
French Mauritius (1715-1810)
The French, who already controlled the neighboring Ile Bourbon (today’s Reunion), gained jurisdiction over Mauritius in 1715 and changed its name to French Island. In 1723, the Code Noir was introduced to categorise a group of people as “goods” so that the owner of these goods could receive insurance money and compensation if their “goods” were lost. The arrival of the French governor Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais in 1735 coincided with the development of a thriving economy based on sugar production. Mahé de La Bourdonnais established Port Louis as a naval base and a centre for shipbuilding.
Under his governorship, numerous buildings were constructed, some of which are still standing today. These include part of Government House, the Château de Mon Plaisir and the Line Barracks, the headquarters of the police forces. It was administered by the French East India Company, and it remained so until 1767.
From 1767 to 1810, apart from a brief period during the French Revolution when the inhabitants established a government virtually independent of France, the island was controlled by officials appointed by the French government. From 1768 to 1771, Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre lived in Saint-Pierre, after which he came back to France and created his most famous love story, Paul and Virginie, which introduced the French-speaking island to the rest of the world. Two famous French governors were the Vicomte de Souillac (who built the Chaussée in Port Louis and encouraged farmers to settle in the Savannah district) and Antoine Bruni d’Entrecasteaux (who ensured that the French in the Indian Ocean would have their headquarters in Mauritius instead of Pondicherry in India).
Charles Mathieu Isidore Decaën had been a very successful general during the French Revolutionary Wars and in a certain sense a rival of Napoleon I. He ruled as governor of the Isle de France and Réunion from 1803 to 1810. The British sea cartographer and explorer Matthew Flinders was arrested and detained on the island by General Decaen, against an order from Napoléon. Mauritius became a base for the French corsairs to raid British trading ships throughout the Napoleonic Wars. These attacks continued until 1810, when a Royal Navy expedition under the command of the Anglo-Irish nobleman Admiral Josias Rowley, R.N., were sent to take over the island. Despite victory at the Battle of Grand Port, the only French naval victory over the British during these wars, the French were unable to prevent the British landing at Cap Malheureux three months later. On the fifth day of the invasion, 3 December 1810, they formally surrendered the island on terms that allowed the settlers to retain their land and property and to apply the French language and French law in criminal and civil matters. During British rule, the name of the island was restored to Mauritius.
British Mauritius (1810-1968)
British rule, which started with Sir Robert Farquhar as Governor-General, resulted in rapid social as well as economic changes. But this administration was damaged by the Rachitatan affair. Rachitatan, who was a nephew of King Radama of Madagascar, had been brought to Mauritius as a political prisoner. He managed to escape from prison and planned a rebellion to free all the slaves on the island. But he was betrayed by one of his companions and was captured by British troops, summarily tried and sentenced to death. On April 15, 1822, he was beheaded in Plaine Verte and the head was displayed as a reminder against future slave rebellions.
In 1832, Adrien d’Épinay started the first Mauritian newspaper (Le Cernéen) that was not controlled by the government. In the same year, there was a push by the Attorney General to abolish slavery without compensation for slaveholders. This led to discontent, and to prevent a possible uprising, the government ordered all residents to surrender their weapons. In addition, a stone fortress, Fort Adelaide, was built on a hill (now known as Citadel Hill) in the centre of Port Louis to put down a possible uprising.
In 1835, slavery had been abolished and eventually the planters were paid two million pounds as compensation for their loss of slaves that had been brought in during the French occupation from Africa and Madagascar. The abolition of slavery had an important impact on the society, economy and population of Mauritius. Planters brought in large numbers of indentured labourers from India to work in the sugar cane fields. Between 1834 and 1921, there were about half a million indentured labourers on the island. They worked on sugar plantations, in factories, in transport and on construction sites. In addition, the British brought 8,740 Indian soldiers to the island. The first British colony at Apuravasi Ghat in Port Louis Bay, now a UNESCO site, functioned as a primary reception point for slaves as well as indentured servants serving as plantation laborers for the British.
An important figure of the 19th century was Rémy Ollier, a journalist of mixed race. In 1828, segregation was officially abolished in Mauritius, but the British governors gave little power to coloureds and appointed only whites as leading officials. Rémy Ollier petitioned Queen Victoria to allow coloureds to become members of the governing council, which became possible a few years later. He also ensured that Port Louis became a municipality so that citizens could govern the city through their own elected representatives. In 1906, a bust of him was erected in the Palais des Compagnieux, while a street in Port Louis was dedicated to him. A new constitution was introduced to Mauritius in 1885. It created elected positions in the governing council, but the right to vote was mainly restricted to the French and Creole classes.
The Indian laborers were not always treated fairly, and a German, Adolf von Prewitz, became a sort of unofficial guardian of these immigrants. He mingled with many of the workers and helped them draft a petition in 1871, which was sent to Governor Gordon. A commission was then set up to look into the complaints of the Indian immigrants, and in 1872 two lawyers appointed by the British Crown were sent from England to conduct an enquiry. This Royal Commission had a great impact as it recommended a lot of measures that would affect the lives of Indian workers for the next fifty years.
In November 1901, at the beginning of the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi made a visit to Mauritius during his journey to India. He stayed on the island for a fortnight and urged the Indo-Mauritian community to take an interest in education and play a more active role in politics. Back in India, he sent over a young lawyer, Manilal Doctor, to improve the situation of Indo-Mauritians. In the same year, thanks to radio, quicker connections were made with Rodrigues.
Motor cars were introduced to Mauritius in 1903, and in 1910 the first cabs were used, driven by Joseph Merven. In 1909, Port Louis was electrified, and during the same decade, the Mauritius Hydroelectric Company ( managed by the Acha brothers) were authorized to supply electricity for the town of Upper Plains Wilhemouth.
The 1910s were a time of great political unrest. The emerging middle class (consisting of doctors, lawyers and teachers) began to challenge the political power of the oligarchs, i.e. the sugar cane landowners. The leader of this new group was Port Louis Mayor Dr. Eugène Laurent, whose party, Action Liberal, requested to be allowed more people to vote. In 1911, a false rumor that Dr. Eugène Laurent had been murdered by a Curepipe oligarch led to riots in Port Louis. the Action Liberals were opposed by the Ordre party, led by Henri Lucrezio, the most influential of the sugar barons. Shops and offices in the capital were damaged and one person was killed. In the same year, 1911, the first public cinema screenings were held in Curepipe and a stone building was erected in the same town to house the Royal College. In 1912, a larger telephone network was put into operation, used by the government, companies and some private households.
In August 1914, the First World War began. Many Mauritians volunteered to fight the Germans in Europe and the Turks in Mesopotamia. However, the impact of this war on Mauritius has been much smaller compared to the wars of the 18th century. On the contrary, the 1914-18 war was a time of great prosperity due to a boom in sugar prices. In 1919, the Mauritius Sugar Syndicate was created, comprising 70% of all sugar producers.
In the 1920s, a “retrocessionism” movement emerged, advocating the transfer of Mauritius back to France. The movement quickly collapsed because none of the candidates who wanted to return Mauritius to France were elected in the 1921 elections. As a result of the post-war recession, there was a sharp fall in sugar prices. Many sugar plantations were closed and it marked the end of an era for the sugar magnates who had controlled not only the economy but also the political life of the country. Raoul Rivet, the editor of the newspaper “Le Mauricien”, campaigned for a constitutional amendment that would give the emerging middle class a greater role in the governance of the country. The principles of the Arya Samaj began to infiltrate the Hindu community, which was demanding more social justice.
The 1930s saw the birth of the Labour Party. It was launched by Dr Maurice Curé. Emmanuel Anquetil mobilized the city workers, on the other hand Pandit Sahadeo concentrated on the rural working class. Labor Day has been celebrated for the first time in 1938. More than 30,000 workers sacrificed a day’s wages and came from all over the island to take part in a huge gathering on the Champ de Mars.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, many Mauritanians volunteered to fight under the British flag in Africa and the Middle East against the German and Italian armies. Some went to England to become pilots and ground crew in the Royal Air Force. While Mauritius was not actually threatened, a number of British ships were destroyed by German U-boats in the waters off Port Louis in 1943. During the Second World War, conditions in the country were harsh; prices for raw materials doubled, but workers’ salaries rose by only 10 or 20 per cent. There was civil unrest and the colonial government did its utmost to suppress all trade union activity. However, on 27 September 1943, workers at the Belle Vue Harel Sugar Estate went on strike. Police officers eventually fired on the crowd, killing three workers, including a ten-year-old boy and a pregnant woman, Anjaly Coopen.
The first parliamentary elections took place on 9 August 1948 and were won by the Labour Party. This party, led by Guy Rozemont, improved its position in 1953 and called for universal suffrage on the basis of the election result. In 1955 and 1957, a constitutional conference was organized in London, where a ministerial structure was established. On 9 March 1959, elections were held for the first time on the basis of universal adult suffrage. The general election was again won by the Labour Party, this time under the leadership of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam.
In 1961, a constitutional review conference was held in London and a programme for further constitutional progress was set. Labor party and its allies won the election in 1963.The Colonial Office noted that politics of a communal nature was gaining ground in Mauritius and that the choice of candidates (by parties) and voting behaviour (by voters) were determined by ethnic and caste considerations. Around this time, two well-known British scholars, Richard Titmuss and James Mead, released a report addressing the social problems of overpopulation and sugarcane monoculture. This led to an intensive campaign to stop the population explosion and the decade saw a sharp decline in population growth.
Independence (since 1968)
At the Lancaster Conference of 1965, it became clear that Britain wanted to break away from the colony of Mauritius. In 1959, Harold Macmillan had made his famous “Winds of Change” speech, in which he admitted that the best option for Britain was to give its colonies full independence. Thus, since the late 1950s, the way for independence was paved.
Later in 1965, after the Lancaster Conference, the Chagos Archipelago was carved out of the territory of Mauritius to form the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). On 7 August 1967, a general election was held in which the Labour Party and its two allies won a majority of seats. The new constitution of Mauritius which was adopted on March 12, 1968 declared the country’s independence. The first Prime Minister of an independent Mauritius was Sir Sayusagur Ramgoolam, while Queen Elizabeth II became Head of State as Queen of Mauritius. In 1969, the opposition party Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM) was formed under the leadership of Paul Bérenger. Then, in 1971, the MMM, backed by labor unions, launched a series of strikes at the ports, which caused a state of emergency throughout the country. The coalition government of the Workers’ Party and the PMSD (Parti Mauricien Social Democrate) responded by curtailing civil liberties and restricting press freedom. Assassination attempts were made twice on Paul Bérenger. Neither was successful, although the second resulted in the death of Azor Adélaïde, a dockworker and activist, on 25 November 1971. Parliamentary elections were postponed and public meetings were banned. The MMM members, which included Paul Berenger, were jailed on December 23, 1971. The MMM leader was released a year later.
In May 1975, a student revolt that began at the University of Mauritius swept the country. Students were dissatisfied with an education system that did not meet their needs and offered limited prospects for future employment. Thousands of students collided with police on May 20 as they attempted to enter Port Louis via the Grand River Northwest Bridge. On 16 December 1975, a law was passed in parliament extending the right to vote to 18-year-olds. This was viewed as attempting to pacify the dissatisfaction among the younger generation.
The next general election was held on 20 December 1976. The Labour Party won 28 out of 62 seats, but the Prime Minister, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, managed to stay in office with a majority of two seats after forming an alliance with Gaetan Duval’s PMSD.
In 1982, an MMM government was elected under the leadership of Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth and Paul Bérenger as Minister of Finance. However, ideological and personal differences arose within the MMM leadership. In March 1983, a power struggle broke out between Berenger and Jugnauth. Jugnauth travelled to New Delhi to attend a summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement. On Jugnauth’s return to Mauritius, Bérenger proposed constitutional amendments to remove power from the Prime Minister. At Jugnauth’s request, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi planned an armed intervention involving the Indian Navy and the Indian Army to prevent a coup – codenamed Operation Lal Dora.
The MMM government dissolved nine months after the June 1982 elections and the new MSM party, led by Aneerood Jugnauth, was elected to power in 1983. Gaëtan Duval became deputy prime minister. For ten years, Prime Minister Anelod Jugnauth ruled the country with the help of the PMSD and the Labor Party.
During this time, the EPZ (Export Processing Zone) sector grew. Industrialisation also began to spread to the villages, attracting young workers from all ethnic communities. As a result, the sugar industry began to lose its influence on the economy. Mammoth shops, which opened in 1985, offered credit facilities to low-income earners, enabling them to afford basic household appliances. There was also a boom in the tourism industry, and new hotels sprang up all over the island. In 1989, the stock exchange opened its doors and in 1992 the free port began operations. In 1990, the Prime Minister lost the vote to amend the constitution so that the country could become a republic.
Mauritius was declared a republic in the UN on March 12, 1992, 24 years after its independence. Administrative power remained in the hands of the Prime Minister.
Despite an improvement in the economy, which was accompanied by a drop in the price of petrol and a favourable dollar exchange rate, the government did not enjoy full popularity. There was discontent as early as 1984. With the Newspapers and Periodicals Amendment Act, the government tried to demand a bank guarantee of half a million rupees from each newspaper. Forty-three journalists protested by taking part in a public demonstration in Port Louis, in front of Parliament. They were arrested and released on bail. This caused a public outcry and the government had to rethink its policy.
There was also dissatisfaction in the education sector. There were not enough quality secondary schools to meet the growing demand of primary school leavers who had completed their CPE (Certificate of Primary Education). In 1991, a master plan for education failed to gain national support and contributed to the fall of the government.
Dr Navin Chandra Ramgoolam was elected Prime Minister in the 1995 election. The landslide victory of 60-0 was a repeat of the 1982 result, but this time it was on the side of the Labour-MMM alliance.
During February 1999, there was a short period of civil unrest. Unrest flared up after the popular singer Kaya, who had been arrested for smoking marijuana at a public concert, was found dead in his prison cell. The four days of chaos were followed by a period of calm as President Kassam Utayem and Cardinal Jean Margeau travelled around the country. A commission of enquiry was set up to investigate the causes of the social unrest. The resulting report got to the bottom of the cause of poverty and qualified many stubborn beliefs as perceptions.
Aneerood Jugnauth of the MSM returned to power in 2000 after forming an alliance with the MMM, which included prominent figures such as Anil Bachoo, Pravind Jugnauth and Sangeet Fowdar. During 2002, Rodriguez became a local municipality in the Republic, which means that it could choose its own delegates to govern the island. In 2003, the post of Prime Minister was given to Paul Bérenger of the MMM, and Aneerood Jugnauth went to Le Réduitt to serve as President.
In the 2005 elections, Navin Ramgoolam, leader of the Labour Party, was swept to power after forming an alliance with the Parti Mauricien Xavier-Luc Duval (PMXD) and other smaller parties. Navin Ramgoolam was elected again in May 2010. This time the Labour Party allied itself with the PMSD and the MSM. Under the new government, the country continued its MID (Maurice Ile Durable) project, started in 2008, to make the economy less dependent on fossil fuels. The political landscape remained rather confused. The Labour Party split from the MSM and then from the PMSD, whose leader had served as Finance Minister. The MMM entered into an alliance (known as Remake) with the MSM, but broke with the latter to ally with the Labour Party. Parliament remained closed for most of 2014. A second republic was proposed (by Labour and MMM leaders), in which a popularly elected president would have more power and rule the country in collaboration with the prime minister. Nomination day was held on 24 November 2014 and for the first time election candidates had the option not to announce their ethnic group. Only a few made use of this option. On 10 December 2014, national elections were held in which the Repep coalition of the MMM, PMSD, and Mouvement Liberater ( which was led by MMM dissidents) gained power by winning 47 out of 60 seats. The Westminster system was thus retained and Aneerood Jugnauth became prime minister for the sixth time.
Shortly after the new government took office, the ex-PM was subjected to lengthy police questioning on charges of money laundering. Bramer Bank had its licence revoked for alleged lack of liquidity and BAI (British-American Insurance) was suspended from trading and placed in receivership. A United Nations tribunal ruled that Britain had acted illegally when it established a marine reserve around the Chagos Islands without the consent of Mauritius, thereby depriving that country of fishing rights. Consequently, new round of negotiations have started with Jin Fei to resurrect the project which started in 2006. In the future, Mauritius will retain an 80 % share in the project, and the rest would be owned by Chinese promoters.
Tourism remains the main source of foreign exchange and the number of visitors to the island reached 1.1 million in 2015. Regardless of this booming tourism industry, Minister of Tourism Xavier-Luc Duval imposed a 2-year moratorium on constructing new hotels. This measure is intended to maintain the balance between supply and demand. It will also help maintain the island’s “paradise” image by keeping overdevelopment along the coast in check.